- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2006

MOGADISHU, Somalia

Accusations that al Qaeda terrorists have been hiding in Somalia revolve a-round an old cleric, a young warrior, a desecrated cemetery and a lot of uncer-tainty.

President Bush and other Western leaders have expressed concern that Somalia could become a safe haven for Osama bin Laden’s terrorist network — worries heightened by the victories of a militia that said it will bring Islamic rule to the Horn of Africa nation.

Interviews with Islamic leaders, moderate businesspeople and other Somalis show that people are frightened by recent events and that the Islamic leaders and the clans through which they operate are under close scrutiny.

The militia loyal to the Islamic Courts Union seized Mogadishu on June 6 after months of fighting that saw more than 330 people killed, most of them civilians. They have since taken control of much of southern Somalia after defeating a coalition of secular warlords backed by the Bush administration who had been fighting each other since the last effective central government collapsed in 1991.

The Islamic Courts Union’s chairman, Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed, denied in an interview Saturday that anyone in his group was involved with international terrorists.

But in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on June 13, Henry A. Crumpton, the State Department’s coordinator for counterterrorism, said a “resilient, enduring, dangerous al Qaeda cell” operates in Somalia, led by Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a man on the FBI’s most-wanted terrorist list.

Investigations by the FBI and Kenyan police have also shown that terrorist attacks in Kenya against the U.S. Embassy in 1998 and an Israeli-owned hotel in 2002 were planned in Somalia, 125 miles across the Gulf of Aden from the Arabian Peninsula. The same al Qaeda cell is thought to be responsible for both attacks.

The Islamic Courts Union is made up of 15 small, clan-based courts, each of which has different rules but all of which have pledged to work together to bring stability to Somalia. Most courts practice the moderate Sufi form of Islam that has dominated Somali culture for centuries.

Two men from the Ayr clan with important roles in three of the courts have reputed links to terrorism, according to international reports, and a third has been accused of arms smuggling.

An Ayr clan leader, however, denies this.

“There are no foreigners in a group training or carrying out terrorist activities in Somalia, [but] there may be [foreign] individuals who are hiding,” said Ali Iman Sharmarke, a businessman and self-described moderate.

He told AP that in an attempt to defuse accusations about the Islamic Courts Union’s connections with terrorists, clan elders met with U.S. Ambassador William Bellamy in Nairobi and promised to capture al Qaeda terrorists if the Americans “tell us exactly where these men are in Somalia.”

The U.S. Embassy would confirm only that Mr. Bellamy has met with Somali community leaders.

Ties to al Qaeda?

But the United States has long accused members of the Ayr clan of having ties to al Qaeda.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, Washington issued a list of individuals and groups accused of having ties to terrorism. A Somali group called al-Itihaad al-Islaami and its founder, Sheik Hassan Dahir Aweys, were featured for their purported links to bin Laden while he was living in Sudan in the early 1990s.

Sheik Aweys, a cleric thought to be in his 60s, has told AP in past interviews that al-Itihaad no longer exists and that he has no ties to al Qaeda.

In recent years, he helped establish the Islamic Courts Union and continues to be one of the group’s most influential and fundamentalist leaders, advocating an Islamic government to end the chaos in Somalia.

In the absence of any Somali government, each clan has autonomy over its own members and Islamic courts settle internal disputes. The transformation of the clans into a united political and military power, however, is new and some see the influence of al-Itihaad.

A May 2006 report by a U.N. committee monitoring the flow of arms into Somalia said al-Itihaad still operates as a militia supporting the courts union and was receiving weapons from Eritrea. The report named Sheiks Aweys and Yusuf Indohaadde as the group’s leaders.

Attempts to reach Sheik Aweys for this article were not successful.

Sheik Indohaadde, who is also an Ayr leader within the union, said Saturday that such reports were fabrications by the union’s enemies to discredit their organization.

‘We have no enemies’

“We want to say in a loud voice that we have no enemies. We have no enmity toward anyone,” Sheik Indohaadde said. “There are no foreign terrorists here.”

A young Ayr leader in charge of the union’s most formidable militia, Aden Hashi Farah Ayro, also has been linked to al Qaeda through his association with Sheik Aweys and his military training in Afghanistan before the U.S. invasion in 2001.

According to a report by the International Crisis Group, Mr. Ayro’s “militia has links to al Qaeda operatives in Mogadishu … to whom it provides protection.”

Mogadishu residents, including moderate supporters of the Islamic Courts Union from outside the Ayr clan, told AP the al Qaeda suspects operate from a camp established in an old Italian cemetery, which they desecrated in January 2005.

Ayr militias, acting on orders from Sheik Aweys and Mr. Ayro, dug up the remains of more than 700 Italians buried between 1908 and 1941 and dumped the bones at the airport. They then built a training camp and constructed a mosque and field hospital at the site.

The camp has become one of the most fortified compounds in Mogadishu, and few people have visited it since the militia took over. But several people who said they had been inside described seeing men from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan training men for the Islamic militia.

“The Saudis have very big beards,” a truck driver who feared retribution told AP on the condition he not be named.

“They take orphaned boys and indoctrinate them, then send them off for military training,” said another Mogadishu resident, who asked not to be named.

Sheik Ahmed, the union’s chairman, acknowledged the union’s militia uses the camp for training, but denied that any foreigners or suspected terrorists were there.

“These kinds of rumors were spread by our enemies,” he said during the interview in Jowhar, 55 miles north of Mogadishu.

He agreed to a request to visit the cemetery, but a spokesman later told AP that Sheik Ahmed would have to accompany journalists, and the tour could only occur after the militiamen in the camp were notified.

Requests to speak to Mr. Ayro were also denied because, union officials said, he was not in Mogadishu.

Moderate elements, who make up the majority of the union’s supporters, said little can be done against al Qaeda suspects who may be in Somalia unless the clan protecting them decides to push them out or turn them over. Any outside interference in clan affairs will only result in bloodshed, they said.

These moderates, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing retribution, said that if a new national government takes power in Somalia, it would be much easier to arrest and deport terror suspects. But until then, clan rules apply.

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